Interviews | Politics

Meet the Challengers: Jaime Guzmán

The Weekly sits down with the nonprofit and government analyst running for alderman in the 14th Ward

Jaime Guzmán is one of three candidates vying for alderman in the 14th Ward, which covers parts of Gage Park, Archer Heights, Brighton Park, and Garfield Ridge. He’s up against Tanya Patiño, a civil engineer who started her campaign late in December but picked up the endorsement of U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García and other progressive groups, and the notorious Ed Burke, who is seeking re-election despite facing federal extortion charges. Guzmán has spent ten years working in nonprofits, doing violence intervention work for Enlace Chicago and improving digital literacy at the Resurrection Project. He’s also worked as an aide to outgoing 22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Muñoz and a legislative staffer for García during his time on the Cook County Board.

Guzmán has positioned himself as the independent candidate, free from moneyed interests or political bosses. Despite being asked by García to withdraw from the race—presumably to create a unified front against Burke—Guzmán stayed on, saying that the ward deserves to have a choice. (García did successfully get José Luis Torrez, a City Colleges counselor who had amassed considerable grassroots support, and previously volunteered for García’s campaigns, to drop out and support Patiño.) He lags behind Patiño in campaign cash by about $100,000, to say nothing of the $12 million in Burke’s war chest, but last week he picked up endorsements from the Tribune and the Sun-Times, both of which emphasized his qualifications for the position.

The question is whether that will be enough to take on one of the most powerful political dynasties in Chicago on the one hand, and a (potential) second one in the making on another. In addition to working with García, Patiño is dating, and worked on the campaign of, Aarón  Ortiz, who ousted Dan Burke (Ed’s brother) from his seat as state representative of the 1st District, which covers most of the 14th Ward. Then again, when Guzmán accused Patiño of doing just that at an aldermanic forum a few weeks ago, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. This is his first run for office.

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How would you describe the job of alderman?

The reality about that job is that it’s a legislative position. It’s one in which aldermen are able to introduce ordinances, resolutions that affect the city of Chicago and affect the residents they represent. They’re also able to influence policy as it pertains to administrative-related agencies within the city. And the thing about the alderman’s office is that the current culture within incumbents is that there’s only so much we can do because we’re here to provide direct city services. But that’s not true. You can use the legislative power to push positive agendas.

What kind of coalition are you building to support your campaign and what is your strategy to grow it?

I started with twenty-five volunteers [who] were able to gather almost two thousand signatures. I’m of the opinion that I stand out as a candidate. At every public event that we have, we’re able to galvanize more and more people because I’m the one that has the most substance. I’ve had a platform since September when other candidates haven’t had a platform. Another thing that’s been helpful to us is the fact that Torrez dropped out of the race. A lot of volunteers are coming to help us out. Here’s the thing, I think there’s an issue when you ask somebody to help you out, and they do it for six months, and then you just quit on them. A lot of people don’t appreciate that, so they’re coming our way.

They also don’t like the dynamic of what’s going on with Tanya’s folks. The ones steering that whole thing are pretty much trying to prescribe who the candidate should be. They’ve gone through the process of trying to get the other candidates to withdraw. They did it with Torres, they asked me to withdraw. We can’t just say we’re going to put up a Mexican to run against the white guy. It’s important that whoever runs, one: has some qualifications that fall in line with the office of the alderman, which is the legislative side. And then we need someone that is going to engage publicly with the community about the issues and not be afraid to answer questions.

You moved to this ward a few years ago. If elected, how will you remain accountable to residents of the ward?

I moved here in 2016, and you only need to live here for one year to run for alderman. I am known around these parts, my wife grew up on 47th and Whipple and I’ve been hanging out in the 14th Ward since 2003. I’ve done 10 years in nonprofit programming. The nonprofit’s that I’ve worked for have serviced these areas. When I was in Pilsen, we were doing a Digital Excellence Program where we’re increasing technology opportunities. We put in a new computer lab which services Brighton Park and Gage Park because those service providers aren’t here in the ward.

I don’t stray from a conversation. I don’t stray from questions. I love interacting with folks. The communities out of here are emblematic of the Southwest Side experience overall. I grew up in Little Village, I’ve lived in Pilsen, there’s people that leave Pilsen and Little Village for these areas. It’s a natural sort of migration. So a lot of these folks, I know and can relate to. A lot of those folks can relate to me. I understand that people want to draw lines from an automatic standpoint, or they want to draw boundary lines from a community standpoint. The truth is there is not much of a difference between Gage Park and places like Little Village. I’m rooted within that experience that cuts across those areas.

As far as coming into the 14th Ward, I’m of the opinion that the next person to lead the 14th Ward has to work on inter-community collaboration on different fronts because there’s Garfield Ridge that does its own thing, Archer Heights does its own thing, and there’s not a whole lot going on in Gage Park. I’m not a politician, I’m an organizer that went to law school. That’s why my job will be to go out to the communities, evoke the cross-collaboration, and then use the skills that I’ve garnered from going to law school and working as a legislative staffer and working for an alderman, to make sure that the things the community wants, we can pull together.

If you could pick the three most important items on your platform and tell me what you’ve done in the last few years to advance those points?

We need economic development that focuses on small business development via creating grants and micro-lending programs for small businesses. The current implementation in the 14th Ward has been to work with developers and big box stores, mostly along the Pulaski corridor, and as of late last year, this corridor along Kedzie. There’s no programmatic and financial support for small businesses. You ask any business owner, and they’ll tell you, one of the biggest issues is perception from consumers about how their business looks. And I’ve worked on programs where we’ve made sure that the businesses are able to get some financial support, because putting together a new facade could be anywhere between $13,000 and $20,000. But it’s impactful. It makes a difference. When people see it, it’s cleaner, it’s nicer, [they think], yes, I want to go in there. I’ve instituted those kinds of programs.

I want to create a special purpose district [which] would impose an additional tax levy on the big box retailers and other developers like this one here [Ed. note: we were in the Starbucks on 55th and Kedzie.], and the ones on Pulaski, and then use those dollars to reinvest in small business economic development. I want to encourage women entrepreneurs to access grants and micro loans. I want artists that want to enterprise themselves to access those monies. And I want people that have traditionally felt that the barriers of entry to whatever market you’re trying to get in now have an opportunity to overcome those challenges.

The other thing is public safety, which is really important, especially here in Gage Park. Roots to Wellness, a nonprofit based out of Little Village, did a 3,000-person survey of people in the Southwest Side, and it included almost 500 people from Archer heights and almost 500 people from Gage Park. And one of the main concerns in Gage Park was that sixty percent of those asked didn’t feel safe walking the streets. [Ed. note: the Roots to Wellness survey included 500 people from Archer Heights and Gage Park combined. A different report from the Sinai Urban Health Institute, which surveyed 131 people in Gage Park, found that forty percent of men and seventy percent of women felt unsafe at night.] That’s a lot of people in that survey to say that. There’s people running in this election that are saying that they want more cops. Ms. Patiño, last week at the Sun Times editorial board interview, said that she wants more cops and detectives. She in fact said that the #NoCopAcademy organizers, all 300 of them, are going about this all wrong. To me, that’s problematic.

If we’re going to talk about public safety, and it’s going to be a one-sided conversation about what the police need, I want nothing with it. I worked as a director of violence prevention in Little Village and we were doing violence intervention work with young people that were facing gun charges or on probation. But we were creating programs for them. I raised $80,000 for after school matters one summer. I was trying to call it a Pimp My Ride kind of program, but for trademark reasons I wasn’t able to, so they changed it to the Automobile Restoration Program. We had thirty-five at-risk youth, and I paid them stipends to learn how to do body work. We kept those kids out of trouble.

I’m of the opinion that if we’re not addressing the root causes of violence, which are poverty, inequality, marginalization, I don’t want a conversation about public safety. It’s more about programs for young people, it’s making sure that they’re not marginalized, it’s making sure that we have at least a $15 minimum wage.

Last thing is transparency and accountability. We don’t have participatory budgeting. No one knows where the TIFs are. There’s the one that subsidized the promenade development on [41st] and Pulaski. The project total was $33 million dollars. Burke subsidized that with $7 million of taxpayer money. [Ed. note: the project was $34 million, and received $10 million in TIF funds.] When I was going door-knocking in Archer Heights and I was asking people, did you know you live in a TIF district? No. Did you know that you and your neighbors all contributed, over the course of this many years, $7 million dollars to subsidize that project? No. If I came to you and said, here’s a project, would you automatically say yes, give me $7 million dollars? [Residents] will say no, they’ll say, I want to learn more about it. What’s it going to bring us, what you’re going to do for us?

There’s people that have criticized me for saying that. They say, isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t it bring jobs? Doesn’t it bring more shopping opportunities for people? Doesn’t it increase property values? Yes, it does. But there’s no process to publicize that. How many jobs are created? How many jobs are retained? What’s the quality of those jobs? Are we paying a livable wage? We don’t know those things. And here’s a crazy idea, what if instead of $7 million dollars we gave them $3 million and we spent $4 million dollars replacing all the service lines in the ward that are lead-based so that we can have healthier water? Doesn’t that also raise property values? My point is that when you engage community, there’s a lot more that can be talked about.

Which of the aldermanic or mayoral candidates do you think share your values and you see yourself working together?

I have a good relationship with Mike Rodríguez who’s running in the 22nd Ward. In the 25th Ward, I actually like all of the candidates, I’ve engaged with all of them. I wouldn’t have a problem working with the next alderman of the 25th Ward. In the 12th Ward, I have a good rapport with the incumbent. I also have really good rapport with the challengers, I wouldn’t have a problem working with the alderman of the 12th Ward. Besides that, I don’t really interact with other politicians, but it’s a good start, especially because those are all wards on the Southwest Side.

For mayor, I like Amara Enyia a lot. I also like Lori Lightfoot. But if I had my pick, I would go with Amara Enyia.

Why do you think Chuy endorsed Tanya and not you?

I like speaking truth to power. I like being heard. I have my opinions about how to do things. There’s some people that don’t like that. There are younger people than me that could be more easily influenced by someone like Chuy. I’ve worked for the man three times. You have to ask him, but it’s nothing I did or didn’t do. That decision isn’t based on who the better candidate is. That decision is based on who is more likely to play the role of facilitator for the consolidation of power on the Southwest Side. That’s what that endorsement is about.

If you look at the numbers, Chuy doesn’t win you an election in the 14th Ward. With Aarón Ortiz’s district, thirty of the thirty-one precincts are in the 14th Ward. [Ed. note: twenty-eight of the seventy-one precincts of the 1st District are in the 14th Ward.] If you look at the election results, Aarón won basically every ward except the 14th Ward. That tells me that communities in the 14th Ward, they don’t just want to vote for somebody that’s a Mexican. Because think about Aarón, he was very inexperienced himself. They’re not trying to look for just a Mexican, they want somebody that’s qualified, they want somebody that is relatable.

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Adam is the Weekly’s editor-in-chief. He last interviewed 14th Ward candidate Tanya Patiño.

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